In the midst of the pandemic, we are reminded of the difficulties of providing quality education, as schools across the country struggle with adequate funding to remain afloat and give students the resources they need. I know this pain firsthand. As chairman of the board of Independence Mission Schools (IMS), last week we announced that St. Gabriel, one of our 15 grade schools in Philadelphia, would consolidate its students into St. Thomas Aquinas at the beginning of the next academic year.
It doesn’t have to be this way — yet recently that’s been the trend. In November, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia shared it will be shutting the doors of two high schools at the end of the school year. St. Basil Academy in Jenkintown is also closing in 2021. The slow but steady decline of enrollment at private schools is not a new trend, but it has been dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. Since 1970, there has been a nearly 40% reduction in private school enrollment. Nobody ever wants to make the difficult decision to close a school, but there comes a point when it is no longer financially feasible.
Closing St. Gabriel was a difficult decision that came after much deliberation and only after every other option was exhausted.
So what happens to these students?
Although there are nearby public and charter school options, my hope is that families will stay within our system. Some parents choose Catholic schools specifically because they want their children to be educated in the Catholic faith, but Catholic schools enroll students from a variety of faiths and backgrounds. IMS currently educates about 4,000 students at 14 schools across many diverse neighborhoods and communities in Philadelphia, and 80% of our enrollment is non-Catholic.
When you look at school closures, elite private schools that enjoy high tuitions rarely shut down. Closures more frequently affect cost-effective Catholic schools benefiting underserved communities and middle-class families.
Like everything, it comes down to funding. Schools like those operated by IMS would not have to close with $2,500 per child of increased scholarship support and state aid — a pittance by public education standards, as the Philadelphia School District spends more than $16,000 per student, according to the latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. When leaders do not adequately fund all of Pennsylvania’s education alternatives, they shift the onus of educating our children back to local taxpayers, depriving parents the ability to make a choice and straining their districts’ budgets.
Our leaders need to put their money where their mouth is — they owe it to the parents, the taxpayers, but most of all, the students. Supporting school choice is noble, but only if we set schools up to succeed. If that $2,500 of increased funding was made available for scholarships through programs like the Education Improvement Tax Credit, there could be a vibrant values-based education alternative for the approximately 1,000 children affected by recent closures. The alternative for policymakers is to allow these students to consolidate into an already strained public sector and educate them at as much as six times the cost.
With proper funding, the IMS network could enroll another 1,500 students, providing them access to a high-quality Catholic education in a safe, nurturing, and inspiring learning environment. With adequate scholarship support, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia could take nearly 15,000 more students in its high schools. Similarly, hundreds of other schools around the commonwealth could serve students if they just had enough scholarship funding.
For decades, Pennsylvania’s private primary and secondary schools have educated millions of children at low cost to the education establishment and taxpayer. Although private, they do a tremendous public service and should be treasured as the resource that they are. Without deliberate policy to see that these schools survive, we could bleed dry this goose that has laid the golden egg and put more strain on public schools, potentially increasing the state’s budget by about $4 billion to cover the over 230,000 current private school students. That would be a true loss for the state, the districts, and most of all, the students. Unless Pennsylvania leaders allocate sufficient funding or tax credit support, school closures will continue, school taxes will increase, and parents will have fewer and fewer choices as to where they can send their children to succeed.
It was Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential Pennsylvanian, who once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” It’s time we heed his advice.
Brian McElwee is board chairman and chair of the executive committee for Independence Mission Schools, an independent network of Catholic schools.